The Establishment of the Barbary Region


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

Chief among the early pirates of the region was Sayyida al-Hurra, the formidable captain of the early 16th-century corsair queen of Tetouan. She was an Andalusian noblewoman, allied with the powerful Barbary Corsairs of Algiers, and commanded an intimidating cosairing fleet of her own. Those Algerian allies of hers also made quite a name for themselves, and in Europe, they were called Barbarossa.

An image of Barbarossa monument in Istanbul
Barbarossa brothers’ power base in Algiers helped establish an Ottoman authority in the region. (Image: Jelican9/Public domain)

The Barbarossa Brothers

The Barbarossa brothers appear in numerous plays, poems, and ballads, perhaps most recently in Anglophone literature, they are featured in the very catchy Children’s songbook Portside Pirates. Their origin story is certainly the stuff of legends.

An Ottoman merchant from the Greek island of Lesbos, by the name of Oruc, was captured by the Knights of Malta. He also lost a younger brother, Ilyas, in the battle. Once freed, he and another brother, Khayr al-din, turned corsair in revenge, attacking both European tradesmen, and the Knights of Malta. The brothers were first based on the Turkish coast. 

When political instability made a change of scenery seem wise, they relocated to North Africa and joined the anti-Spanish efforts there. Among other things, like a small matter of taking over Algiers in 1516, Oruc made an effort to assist the Muslim populations fleeing Spain.

In gratitude for these services, goes one theory, he was nicknamed Baba Oruc, which was translated into Barbarossa in Italian. In other words, the Corsair admiral of Algiers was, on the European continent, Redbeard the Pirate. On the other hand, Oruc lost his left arm in a Spanish sea battle, and the story goes that he covered the wound with a silver prosthetic, so the Ottomans’ nickname for him was not Redbeard, but Silver Arm.

Establishing an Ottoman Authority

The brothers’ power base in Algiers helped establish an Ottoman authority in the region because, in pushing out the Spanish, they also helped to push out the local leaders who had been tolerant or resigned to the Spanish presence.

In 1518, Oruc and his brother Isshack died in battle against the combined forces of the Spanish, and Bedouin troops in Algeria. Carol Dean, however, inherited his older brother’s authority and carried on his legacy, promising to bring the Maghreb under Ottoman control.

A painting of the Preveza battle
Admiral Andrea Doria lost the battle against Khayr al-din in the Preveza battle. (Image: Osman Nuri Pasha and Hovhannes Umed Behzad/Public domain)

Khayr al-din made Algeria a formidable naval base from which to launch corsairing campaigns against the coast of Italy and Spain. He was then made admiral of the entire Ottoman fleet, as well as the governor of their North African territory, and successfully allied with France against Spanish power. Algiers under Barbarossa’s management withstood even the direct assault of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. 

The Ottomans became, under his leadership, the dominant force in the Mediterranean, challenging both the Spanish, and the Holy Roman Empire. The imperial admiral Andrea Doria lost to Barbarossa in the Battle of Preveza in 1538.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of PiratesWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Establishment of Barbary Region

Khayr al-din’s successors rested Tripoli and Tunis permanently from Spanish control. The independence of the Barbary region from Spain was established, although its relationship with the Ottoman Empire would remain something of a contest. 

Moreover, by the latter part of the 16th century, the Barbary region had established able naval forces, strong port cities, and a predilection for an economy reliant on corsairs and captives. The Moroccan states remained independent of the Ottomans, but thanks to rulers like Sayyida al-huraa, their corsairing situation was similar.

Better to Negotiate than Fight

Painting of hand-to-hand fighting between British sailors and Algerian pirates
European powers found it more effective to negotiate with the Barbary powers than to fight against them. (Image: John Fairburn/Public domain)

Indeed, as time went by, the European powers largely came to the conclusion that negotiating with Morocco and the other Barbary powers worked much more effectively than fighting their corsairs. The change came gradually as international trade became more important to the European economies; navies were grown to protect merchant ships in powerfully armed convoys. 

Slowly, these navies got better at strategies for blockading reports. Blockades are tricky and expensive things. Ships that are subject to wind and currents must patrol rather than remain stationary in the ocean. And the ocean is, you’ll recall, very big. 

The Treaty Between Algiers and Britain

By the 1683 treaty with Algiers, a combination of steadily improving naval forces and tactics, and steadily improving diplomacy, meant that the Barbary Corsairs were, for the most part, contained as far as harassment of English shipping.

Corsairs from Sale, known as Salle Rovers, were still a factor. Sale was independent until 1688 and its economy was very corsair independent, but they became a much smaller nuisance. Spain and Portugal continued to take it on the nose, but as you can imagine, that was not very upsetting to Britain. 

Indeed, inter-European rivalries were one reason Europeans were reluctant to combine forces and try to stamp out corsairing entirely. And the Barbary states were perfectly astute about playing European powers against each other to maximize their tributes.

The Economics of It All

Later on, in the early 18th and early 19th centuries, there was a resurgence of Moghrabi corsairing. After the war for American independence, American ships were chagrined to discover that they were no longer protected by treaties between corsairs and Britain. They needed to find their own combination of diplomacy and bombardment in the early years of the 19th century.

The thing that the dominance, and reach of the Mediterranean corsairs really underscores, however, is that pirate empires are made and maintained on land. Even brave men who spend years at sea need an economy back home to make it all work.

Common Questions about the Establishment of the Barbary Region

Q: When did the Barbary region become independent from Spain? 

The independence of the Barbary region from Spain was established when the successors of Khair al-Din Barbarossa permanently took Tripoli and Tunisia out of Spanish control.

Q: What progress did the Barbary region make after the independence from Spain?

In the late 16th century, after the independence of the Barbary region from Spain, the region created powerful navies, strong port cities, and strong economies based on captives and corsairs. The Moroccan governments that were part of the region became independent from the Ottomans, but their corsairing situation remained similar.

Q: Why did the European powers decide to negotiate with the Barbary powers?

Over time, international trade became more important to European economies and their navies grew. So the European powers concluded that negotiating with the Barbary powers would be much more effective and better than fighting their corsairs.

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